For Better Onboarding That Boosts Retention, Copy the Marine Corps Model



A failure to retain employees causes tremendous expense for a company. Replacing a single worker can cost 6-9 months’ worth of their salary when you factor in advertising, interviewing, and training. Moreover, new employees tend to be less productive and make more errors than seasoned employees simply because they do not have the same amount of experience in the role.

For large companies, high turnover is a burden; for smaller companies, it can be utterly debilitating. Despite this, retention failure is common throughout the US. According to Gallup, more than one third of employees changed jobs between 2014 and 2017, and more than half of employees are looking for new opportunities. Though some of that mobility can be written off as the result of increased economic opportunity, a new trend, employee “ghosting,” speaks directly to how many workers feel about their employers today.

Ghosting is when an employee quits a job without giving any notice. They just don’t show up, leaving the business to deal with the loss. That is a direct refutation of the company’s culture.

The 3 Phases of Effective Onboarding

Conventional wisdom holds you only get one chance to make a first impression. For a company, that first impression is the onboarding experience, during which a new employee learns how the company operates and how well they fit in with the workplace culture. The onboarding experience permanently influences an employee’s outlook on their new job and their desire to stay at that job. When a company’s onboarding process inadequately integrates an employee, it greatly diminishes the company’s chance of retaining that employee.

To make the kind of impression that gets employees excited about staying for the long term, organizations must consider onboarding from a more strategic perspective. By breaking onboarding into three phases — preboarding, onboarding, and follow-up — employers can get new hires off to a strong, successful start that increases the chance of retention.

1. Preboarding

Employee onboarding can begin before the new hire’s first day; this is the phase marked “preboarding.” Preboarding allows a new employee to familiarize themselves with company values, safety codes, and other important policies before they ever sit down at their new desk. This gives the employee a deeper understanding of the company and allows them to arrive more confidently at their first day of work.

Additionally, preboarding is a good time for new hires to complete important paperwork surrounding payroll, benefits, and other necessary items. This paperwork can be tedious and doesn’t really require the employee to be in the office. When the new hire completes paperwork ahead of time, the in-office stage of onboarding can be dedicated to more engaging and more valuable pursuits.

Consider also having an assigned mentor in the new employee’s department reach out during the preboarding phase. That way, the employee maintains some kind of direct connection with the organization in the time leading up to their start date. The mentor can also appraise the new hire’s strengths and opportunities for growth, allowing for the creation of a more tailored training process when the new hire starts their job.

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2. Onboarding

The proper onboarding phase takes place during an employee’s first few weeks on the job. Rather than putting all new hires through the same generic experience, companies should collaborate with each employee to create a unique onboarding phase based on the information gathered about the employee during the preboarding stage.

The new hire’s mentor should have taken the time to get to know them during preboarding. They can use this knowledge to pace the new hire’s development and tailor their training and acclimation processes. An essential part of this phase is the development of the new hire’s personal road map. In a frank conversation, the new hire and their superior should lay out what the employee hopes to achieve in the next few years at the company and what the employee needs to do to reach those goals.

Along the way, make time for the new employee to socialize with their coworkers. Far from detracting from the onboarding process, this time has tremendous value. People who have friends at work are more likely to be engaged at work, and higher engagement is correlated with all kinds of gains in employee performance and productivity.

3. Follow-Up

Follow-up is an important part of the onboarding process for the organization and the employee. The organization needs to solicit feedback from the employee regarding which aspects of the onboarding process worked and which need improvement. Meanwhile, the employee needs to follow up with their supervisor regularly to check in on their progress along their personal career road map. These regular check-ins will help retain the employee and steer them toward success.

Break It Down Further: The Marine Corps Model of Onboarding

Onboarding is a missed opportunity for many organizations. About a third of companies have no structured onboarding process, and three-quarters of HR leaders believe their existing onboarding process is not utilized to its full potential.

That is not to place blame on any one individual or department. In an era where employees are consistently told to do more with less, it can be difficult to find the time and resources to create and maintain the kinds of robust onboarding programs that drive new hire success and retention.

Still, a successful onboarding process is worth the cost. An outstanding example of the onboarding process can be seen in how the United States Marine Corps onboards its civilian hires.

The Marine Corps employs more than 35,000 civilians as part of its support staff around the world. When onboarding these employees, the Marine Corps breaks the process into five distinct steps:

  1. Before You Arrive
  2. Your First Day
  3. Your First Week
  4. Your First 90 Days
  5. Your First Year

Each step comes with its own set standards and clear goals. Throughout the process, new hires are guided through every key item, from completing the correct paperwork to navigating building security and gaining access to essential accounts. Crucially, the onboarding program also lays out the continuing education programs available to those who stay for more than year. It should also be noted that the Marine Corps’s onboarding program offers a pathway for reasonable accommodations for workers with a disability — something many organizational onboarding processes lack.

The Marine Corps onboarding process offers a model that can be easily copied and adapted by any company looking to boost its long-term retention rates. Rather than starting from scratch, simply follow the lead of the Marine Corps.

Kevin Johnston is a contractor and technical writer working for the Headquarters Marine Corps Talent Management Oversight Directorate. The views expressed within this article are his own.

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